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As snow comes down, so do the trees

Al Capone

Local arborists have been swamped with calls to deal with damage to historic cherry trees, common oaks and towering evergreens loaded down by the overwhelming snowfall.

"We can't even begin to get a handle on it," said Frank Fogle, arborist for Baltimore's Davey Tree, one of the oldest tree services in the country.

"We've been hearing from all the ZIP codes," said Fogle from Davey's Falls Road office. "Just got a call from Mount Vernon. A magnolia is breaking up over there."

The weekend blizzard of wet snow piled a lot of extra weight on trees in Maryland. A tree that gangster Al Capone left to Union Memorial Hospital - a gift after he was treated there for syphilis - split in half, slicing off a large limb from the 70-year-old weeping cherry. Utility officials blamed the widespread power outages in hard-hit Montgomery County on the trees that line many of its streets.

With another round of 10 inches snow, or more, predicted through today, the stress on trees will increase.

It is all part of the life of trees, said Don VanHassent, associate director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

"It isn't a catastrophe," he said. "A healthy tree is a very resilient creature. But if there are other issues - if there are dead branches, or shallow roots, or rot, or a tree is already leaning to one side - that can make things worse."

Evergreens are suffering most, said Fogle. "Think of all that snow on a fly-swatter, and then think of all that snow falling on a kitchen whisk. The snow is filtering through the oaks and the other hardwoods. But it is lying really heavy on the spruce, white pines, cypress."

In addition to all the surface area on evergreens, their cell structure is larger, said Fogle, making them more fragile.

His crews have been out tending to downed trees all across Baltimore - more than 40 calls since Sunday during what is normally the quietest time of the year - at a cost to homeowners of anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars.

Lisa Andrews of the Davey office in Severn, which serves Anne Arundel County and the Eastern Shore, said she has fielded 15 to 20 calls since Sunday. "But it has been hard for our people to get to the properties or get on the properties because of the snow," she said.

In many cases, the best thing the crew can do is shake the snow off.

"Trees are made to be flexible," Fogle said. "Well, maybe not this flexible. But we are advising clients to just leave it alone. When the spring comes and the sap rises, you'd be surprised how they bounce back."

That is particularly true for younger trees that might be bent over. Those trees are the most likely to pop back up, Fogle said.

The same is true for shrubs. It is easier for homeowners to take a broom and dust the snow off shrubs to lessen damage. But even small shrubs can recover quickly in the spring.

"The key thing is safety," said Fogle. "We can warn homeowners not to park under [a tree]. Or cut it down if it is over a house. But to be honest, a tree is cheaper to get rid of when it is already on the ground."

VanHassent of the DNR was not happy about the prospect of more snow, but he was grateful it was not an ice storm that was predicted.

"The snow will mean just that much more weight. That can mean weak branches get snapped off, and shallow trees get pulled up by their roots. It is a shame we didn't get some time for melting to get rid of some of that weight.

"But snow can blow off. An ice storm, with a quarter- or a half-inch of ice, is much worse," he said, because the weight clings to the coated tree.

But all in all, VanHassent was sanguine.

"When we get a big storm, trees come down and branches come down, and life goes on."

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